A Tale of Two Spies: Franklin and Keyser

Gale Luft - Institute for the Analysis of Global Security - October 10, 2004

When the story about Israel allegedly spying on the US via Pentagon analyst Lawrence Franklin broke, the media were all over it. Bombastic headlines announced the presence of "a mole at the Pentagon," who passed classified material to the Israeli government via employees of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Old time tales of Jonathan Pollard resurfaced and Israel critics in Washington hyped the story to prove their conspiracy theory that the Jews are in control of the Pentagon and hence shape US foreign and defense policy in favor of Israel. Thanks to the Republican convention and a string of hurricanes the Franklin story eventually subsided.

In the same month another James Bond-like affair broke, this time at the State Department. Donald Keyser, who until his recent resignation was the principal deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, appeared before a federal court facing far more damning accusations than Franklin's.

According to a criminal affidavit filed last month, only one day after leaving office Keyser met with a 33-year-old female Taiwanese intelligence agent and passed her documents. Keyser is also charged with Conducting an unauthorized trip to Taiwan in September 2003. He told the FBI he did not tell anyone about the trip, including his wife, who is a CIA officer. His $570 State Department credit card bill at a Christian Dior boutique in Taipei may explain why. It is also likely that Keyser did not tell his family about his other activities with the Taiwanese woman such as the day they spent together in New York City and their meetings at several Washington-area restaurants. In the last of these meetings on September 4, Keyser gave her and her superior a six-page document captioned "Discussion Topics." He told the FBI that he often prepared briefing material for his Taiwanese contacts.

Since both the Franklin and Keyser affairs broke within a month of each other it is worth talking a look at how they were treated by the American media. Both affairs are similar in the sense they involve American officials allegedly passing information to foreign countries. Both involve allies of the U.S. trying to decipher America's policy toward their respective enemies: Iran in the case of Israel and China in the case of Taiwan. But there are some significant differences not only in the details of the cases but also in the way they were presented to the public.

The Franklin affair involved a low-level bureaucrat who allegedly passed information to Americans who lobby for Israel. The Keyser affair involves a top-level official who allegedly passed information to foreign nationals who also happen to be intelligence agents. Franklin's action was a one timer; Keyser's enduring. In the Franklin case there has been no arrest and no arrest is believed to be imminent. Keyser, who is still a State Department employee assigned to the Foreign Service Institute, has actually been arrested. More important, when it comes to U.S.-Israel relations there may not be even a single significant issue on which Israel and the U.S. differ. Even if Franklin did pass classified information the likelihood that such an act could compromise U.S. security is minimal. This cannot be said about Taiwan. In recent months, U.S.-Taiwan relations have reached a low point due to the Bush administration's opposition to any unilateral movement by Taiwan toward formal independence. Information that could lead to a change in Taiwan's behavior could put the U.S. on a collision course with China.

Yet, the high visibility of the Franklin case in the media compared to the low profile coverage of the Keyser story -- page one in the Washington Post for Franklin versus page 8 for Keyser -- raises questions about the process in which a news item becomes a big story, reaffirming long standing suspicions of double standards in the coverage of Israel.

In the Franklin case the American media rushed to publish the names of the AIPAC lobbyists and that of the Israeli diplomat who was present at the meeting. For all of these seemingly innocent people this publicity is certainly ruinous. In the Keyser case, we are spared the details about the identity of the lady and her operator, even though both of them are stationed at the Taipei Economic Cultural and Representative Office in Washington. Thanks to the Taiwanese press we learned that the senior operative was Huang Kuang-hsun, head of the National Security Bureau's intelligence network in America, and his young aide is Chen Nian-tsu. It is also revealed that "besides her outer appearance," Ms. Nian-tsu is "outgoing, able to hold her alcohol, completely fluent in English and along with her social skills [...] she also excels in the area of gathering intelligence." To date, none of the news outlets in the U.S. published this information. Despite the fact that in the world of espionage a cultural or economic attaché is often euphemism for an intelligence agent, not one reporter raised the question of what kind of cultural activities are being conducted at the aforementioned office, which serves as the de-facto embassy of Taiwan in Washington. Nor did the dozens of State Department correspondents present at the daily press briefings raise questions about the dubious practice of high-ranking State Department officials preparing "talking points" for a foreign government.

In the case of Franklin, the press was quick to portray Franklin as a fanatic Christian Zionist. The Los Angeles Times quoted an official describing him as "an idiot," as if someone who decides to help Israel is either a fundamentalist or an idiot. (I doubt the person who called him an idiot or the reporter who decided to use the quote speaks five languages, holds a doctorate and teaches at a university, as Franklin does.) On Keyser, on the other hand, mainstream media had nothing but praise.

It is too early to pass judgment about the legality and morality of the activities of Franklin and Keyser. This is for the FBI and the judicial system to do. They both might turn out to be well-intentioned and decent bureaucrats who might have misjudged. But it is not premature to pass judgment about the way the two cases were reported. The Franklin case has been marred with unsubstantiated accusations and hyping of facts designed to fuel a liberal witch-hunt against neo-conservatives at the Pentagon and the pro-Israel lobby. This "pursuit of truth" has been far less energetic in the Keyser story even though by any yardstick it is of far more serious story and much more in the public's interest.

Gal Luft is executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS)

  • See Also: The Franklin/AIPAC Spy Case Page